Human decision making and human behavior are ultimately biological. By extension, they are evolved. Evolutionary ecology arguably represents the only possible way to integrate the study of human behavior across disciplines ranging from anthropology to economics. In spite of this tremendous potential, controversy often plagues the study of basic questions related to evolution and human behavior. In the broadest terms, this class is an extended analysis of the potential of evolutionary analyses of human behavior, the reasons for persistent controversies, and strategies for how to make significant progress.
1) The class will examine how disciplinary and methodological diversity contribute to a specific set of intractable controversies. These controversies relate to (i) the role of culture and cultural evolution, (ii) the evolution of cognition and emotion, (iii) the implications of evolution for social policy, sustainability, and human well-being, (iv) the evolution of human cooperation, and (v) the evolution of harmful and destructive behaviors.
2) The class will also analyze whether the evolutionary study of human decision making and behavior presents unique challenges not present in other fields.
3) The class will introduce the concept of evolutionary inference, which refers to how we make claims about an evolutionary process that we typically cannot actually observe.
4) The class ask students to identify key methodological problems limiting progress and propose approaches for a definitive way forward.
5) More broadly, the class will help students develop their ability to identify fundamental problems and develop strategies for solving them.
6) Students will develop skills related to giving oral presentations and proposal writing.
The first half of the semester will involve a series of in-depth lectures on the following topics related to evolution and human behavior.
- The evolution of psychological systems, with a special emphasis on cognition and motivation. In particular, are evolved psychological systems biased in some way? Why, for example, are we scared of snakes but not cars? Do heterosexual men tend to think women are more interested in them romantically than these women actually are? If so, how could such a bias evolve? Has our psychology evolved in a way that predisposes us to believe in supernatural agents, and if so are we scared of these supernatural agents?
- How do cultures evolve, and what does cultural evolution have to do with evolution more broadly?
- Does cultural evolution shape genetic evolutionary processes, and if so how?
- Are humans really altruistic and distinctively cooperative, and if so how could such individually costly behaviors evolve? Is cultural evolution important with respect to these questions?
- What, if anything, can a policy maker who wants a better world and a better society learn from evolution? Similarly, what can a manager do to promote the diffusion of norms and technologies within an organization that are consistent with the manager's goal? Broader still, whether we are managers, government officials, or NGO workers, how can we recruit cultural evolutionary processes to accomplish specific social goals?
- How do we explain pervasive harmful behaviors and bad decision making from an evolutionary perspective? Why, for example, do some people harm their children? Why do entire groups of people believe things that are verifiably wrong? Why do societies persist in the use of sub-optimal technologies?
All of the above questions represent fundamental questions in the evolutionary study of human decision making and behavior. All of them receive widespread attention from large numbers of highly trained researchers. That said, all of them suffer from persistent disagreement and controversy. This controversy, and the reasons for it, will serve as a key organizing theme for the class. In particular, the second half of the semester will invite students to pick a specific problem from the list and examine the reasons for the controversy surrounding this problem. The basic task will be to isolate the methodological issues that allow controversy to persist and then propose a scientific strategy for making real progress.
Accordingly, students will present oral presentations of their work during the second half of the term. These presentations and associated feedback - feedback from both the other students and from the instructors - will allow students the opportunity to refine and improve their ideas. The final assignment for the class will be a research proposal based on the presentation and associated feedback. The ultimate task is to pick a controversy, isolate the problem, and propose an approach that will allow definitive progress.